Torah Sociology: Whatsapp and Our Multi-Generational Families

​The smart phone can be used as a tool to Torah culturally empower our multi-generational families.

Dr. Chaim Charles Cohen

Judaism פלאפון Motorola RAZR
פלאפון Motorola RAZR

Our current generation of younger, national religious grandparents is blessed with being the heads of large, diversified, multi-generational families. Keeping this 'tribe' coalesced, and in touch with each other, is a challenging task. This article addresses the question, "How important is it to maintain a 'tribal' sense of togetherness in our extended, religious families?" It concludes by reporting that the smart phone's "what'sapp" application turns out to be a big help in maintaining extended family togetherness.

Our extended families are larger than those of our parents

Those of us who were born post WWII (1945-55), married and became parents in the 1970's, and became grandparents in the 1990's, now,  in our sixties, find ourselves to be the heads of three generation families of 25-50 individuals. Though smaller than ultra-orthodox families, our current generation's three generational families are often twice as large as those of our parents (born before WWII), and truly gigantic by modern, secular Western standards.

The large, extended religious family is a unique phenomenon in non-immigrant, Western, middle class society. Of all my secular siblings and college friends in America, I am the only one to have grandchildren. (When Western secular families have grandchildren, the number is usually one to five). Our three generational families have become so large that a Shabbat bar mitzvah or sheva brachot of two sets of siblings and grandchildren will be between 50-70 plus individuals. The guest list for a wedding of first degree relatives (uncles, aunts and first cousins) can be close to 120-150 guests from each side. Given our extended families size and diversity, planning a 2-3 day summer vacation outing for the siblings and grandchildren (usually heavily financed by the grandparents) is expensive, and demands a very high degree of social agility to keep everyone pleased.

And the reality is that our extended families can be both a source of social support and social discord. (In comparison to ultra-orthodox families) our families are quite diversified, including a wide range of religious life styles and observance, and economic incomes and statuses. This diversity is a guaranteed recipe for competition, jealousy and misunderstandings. Finding a common denominator of mutual understanding, and comforting hurt feelings, is an important task of parents of three generation families- almost as demanding as 'when the kids were little'. And of course the children semi secretly compares the social/financial support, visits and babysitting that every other siblings receives from the parents.

The social importance of multi-generational religious family life

So is it worth all the effort, and sometimes the discord, that it takes to coalesce a 2-4 generation, extended clan, and to actualize a sense of group-family identity amongst our children and grandchildren?  I believe that the answer is an emphatic yes. Working to create an extended clan is probably the most meaningful task a religious grandparent can do in the 60' and 70's of his life.

The social mobility, economic competition and moral relativism of modern secular society create social isolation, fragmented families, and the loss of a sense of community. The three generation, extended family is the most powerful answer to the centrifugal (a tearing apart) forces of secular society. Our extended family provides concrete support to our married children when they find themselves in financial, medical or social crisis.

On the positive side, membership in an extended family provides an important sense of group identity, beyond one's own nuclear family, one that reinforces the religious and national values that we want to pass onto our grandchildren and great grandchildren. In this vein, the extended family serves an important, meta-religious, educational purpose.

It also greatly enhances the joy and meaningfulness of life cycle (brit mila, bar mitzvah, weddings) events. For example, in the ultra-orthodox world, extended family, life cycle events are the major form of kosher social recreational activity. In brief, the extended is a powerful antidote to the social ills of modern, secular society.

How technology can empower our multi-generational families

So how do we go about bringing together our clan? Given the geographic distances, and the very busy work and social schedules of the children, extended family get-togethers are really possible only one to four times a year. Usually the daughters are more likely to stay in touch with each other by phone and the sons do. Certain siblings, with a particular sense of closeness, proximity or commonality will host each other on Shabbat or holidays. However, in the extended family of busy, four or more siblings, most siblings are not very updated on the doings and experiences of each other, and of the nieces and nephews.

For this purpose I devote several hours each week to putting together and sending be email a 2-3 page family newspaper. But as very few have the patience or desire for writing, a family newsletter is appropriate for only a few families. Other extended families use "facebook" for rapid, open intra-extended family communication, but many older religious families  do not yet actively use facebook.

However, a little over a year ago, with the widespread use of smartphones, we started sharing moments, events and pictures on the 'what'sapp' (a take off on "What's up?") application, and it has tremendously benefited our intra-extended family communication. The 'what'sapp' application is quick and easy to use, has the drama of being sent and received in 'live, prime time, and everyone enjoys responding in a witty, supportive manner. In contrast,  emails over the internet may be more informative, and are appropriate for more serious communication and intra-family planning, but they lack the 'intimate immediacy' of the 'what'sapp'. The latter combines both cuteness and directness. It easily allows everybody to share with everybody, thus by passing the social reality that in most extended families certain sibling swill naturally share more closeness with one sibling than another. The 'what'sapp' thus allows for a certain egalitarianism in intra-family communication.

Using the internet as a blessing and not a curse

In summary, internet communication has proven to be a very decisive 'double edged sword'- both a serious danger, and a frequent blessing. It has put corrupting pornography and sources of knowledge in the palm of one's hand. It has frequently substituted virtual, surface social relationships for challenging, rewarding, face to face  social relationships. On the other hand, it has allowed isolated individuals to have a social life that otherwise would be denied to them, and has given to all of us  access to wonderful horizons and sources of knowledge, including the world of Torah.

In our case, 'what'sapp' has become a simple but meaningful contribution to enhancing and strengthening the intra-sibling relationships in our extended family. The religious extended family is one of the sociological 'miracles' of modern society. It plays a critical role in allowing us to develop and perpetuate, from generation to generation, our two thousand year old way of life.

Rachel and Rabbi Akiva did not communicate over the cell phone. If they did maybe Rabbi Akiva would not have become the great Torah scholar.  But in our more humble, social existence today, the smart phones' "what'sapp" has proven to very beneficial. To paraphrase a slogan from the American 50's, an extended family that "what'sapps together" will be more likely to stay and celebrate together.